Film Study Guide


Unwilling to abide Adolf Hitler's blatant military aggression throughout Europe, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany in September of 1939. The system of alliances formed amid many European and Asian countries during the 1930s was therefore triggered, and much of the world was rapidly plunged into war. Circumstances would not allow the United States, in spite of its initial statement of neutrality, to sit out World War II. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii, and the United States officially entered the war on behalf of the Allied Nations.

By 1942, some 45,000 downed Allied airmen had been captured by the Germans. To relieve its overflowing prisoner-of-war camps and address the countless escape efforts, Germany opened a giant POW complex in April of 1942. The new Stalag Luft III was located at Sagan, Poland, roughly halfway between Berlin and Breslau. It would eventually house over 10,000 Allied air force officers.

Stalag Luft III represented the sum of everything the Germans had learned about guarding POWs and foiling their escape attempts. The camp was positioned deep in the woods, far removed in every direction from Allied-friendly territory. More importantly, Stalag Luft III was built on ground composed of sandy dirt. The soil's relatively loose composition added another uncooperative variable to the already difficult enterprise of tunneling (the most common method of escape).

The American, British, and Canadian prisoners of Stalag Luft III were confined in a 300-yard-square area known as the North Compound. The compound was surrounded by a double fence, generously strung with rusted barbed wire. The fences reached nine feet high and stood five feet apart. Sandwiched between the two fences was additional barbed wire, coiled so densely in some places it tested one's eyes to see through it. Also contained in the compound was an exercise area where the prisoners passed the time with their favorite recreations—baseball for the Americans, soccer for the British, and hockey for the Canadians.

A warning wire, raised about 18 inches off the ground, ran the circumference of the compound ten yards inside the fence. Any prisoner who dared trespass the area between the wire and the fence could expect a spray of machine gun bullets from trigger-happy sentries in towers (called "goon-boxes" by the prisoners) located just outside the fence. The goon-boxes were placed about 150 yards apart with a clear view of the entire compound and an unrestricted field of fire. Electronic listening devices, connected to headphones continuously manned in the German administrative area, were buried along the camp perimeter to detect noise from tunnel digging.

Throughout the day, specially trained guards (otherwise known as "ferrets") strolled the compound proper, wandering in and out of barracks, keeping eyes wide open and ears keenly perked for an oversight, however slight, by any prisoner that might betray a tunnel under construction. At night, while powerful searchlights from the goon-boxes constantly swept the compound, additional guards, some towing vicious dogs trained to kill on command, weaved among the barracks and patrolled outside the fences.

Dense forestland completely encapsulated the camp. The timber had been cut back 30 yards beyond the fences so that any prisoner who managed to somehow cut through the sea of barbed wire fencing would then have to dash for cover over a sizable stretch of clear land—an open target for the machine guns in the goon-boxes. Furthermore, the empty land meant that any tunnel, even from the barracks nearest the woods, would have to be at least 100 yards in length to reach the trees.

The German high command had placed Stalag Luft III under the jurisdiction of the Luftwaffe, commanded by Reich Marshal Herman Georing. Himself a pilot during World War I, Georing held a certain degree of respect, however limited, for Allied airmen. For this, the prisoners could be thankful. Had the camp been controlled by the SS, conditions would have been much more unbearable. Hence, it appears Georing's master scheme was to build an escape-proof fortress, while at the same time making it comfortable enough so its occupants would be content to wait out the war with minimal effort directed toward escaping.

Ironically, the camp would turn out to be the perfect environment for a thriving escape organization! In spite of the exhaustive escape precautions (and the relative level of comfort), it was from the North Compound of Stalag Luft III that the infamous Great Escape occurred in March of 1944. The massive exodus, intended to accommodate 200-plus POWs, was planned by an ingenious team comprised of over 600 men.

At the head of the organization was Squadron Leader Roger Bushell (aka "Big X"), who administered every phase of the escape preparations. He held daily conferences with his chiefs, including his confidant, First Lieutenant Sydney Dowse, and Herbert Massey, the Senior British Officer. One by one, Bushell gathered his specialists and informed them of their critical responsibilities.

For more than a year, the prisoners sewed civilian clothing, forged passports and other important documents (complete with photographs and official government stamps), printed maps, manufactured compasses, obtained time-tables of the Sagan trains, and dug three tunnels, dubbed "Tom," "Dick," and "Harry." Progress was understandably slow—the tunnels had to go 30 feet deep before actually heading outward from the compound so as to evade the underground microphones. Each tunnel was equipped with a railway system to remove dirt and transport men, a string of lights tapped off the camp's electrical system, and a fresh air mechanism with pipes fashioned from tin cans and a pump made of backpacks.

Perhaps the most challenging task of all was to conceal the extensive escape preparations from the ever-present ferrets roaming the compound. For this, Bushell appointed American Lieutenant Colonel A. P. "Junior" Clark (aka "Big S") as chief of security. Clark oversaw a team of 300 "stooges" who clandestinely watched the ferrets' every move, ready to signal the escape workers if danger approached.

Actual construction of the tunnels began in April of 1943. In spite of several mishaps (one of the tunnels was detected by the Germans), and the vexing problem of what to do with all of the displaced dirt (over 130 tons of soil was redistributed around the camp by a team of "penguins"), Harry had reached a length of nearly 350 feet—enough, according to the surveyors, to reach the outlying trees—by early 1944. March 24, a no-moon night, was designated as the date of escape.

The escape itself was plagued with numerous setbacks and delays from the very start, when the tunnel opening was discovered to be several feet shy of the tree line. Consequently, Bushell fell considerably short of his goal of evacuating 200 prisoners. Nonetheless, an unheard-of 76 men—each hoping he'd seen the last of Stalag Luft III—had passed to freedom through the tunnel that night, a remarkable number for a single escape effort.

The German high command issued a massive alert. Some five million German troops, policemen, and auxiliary personnel would eventually be diverted from their normal war assignments to search for the escaped airmen. For most of the prisoners, freedom was expectantly short-lived. Within a fortnight, almost all of the escapees had been apprehended.

When news of the escape reached Hitler, he was livid. The Fuerher immediately called for the execution of all recaptured prisoners. Georing, however, intervened and convinced Hitler otherwise—not in the name of humanity but because of practical politics. Such action, reasoned Georing, would not only make it blatantly obvious the men were murdered (in violation of the Geneva Convention), it might encourage Allied reprisals against German POWs. Apparently seeing the logic, Hitler informed Goering that "more than half of them are to be shot." The official text of Hitler's hideous plan, known as the Sagan Order, was issued to the appropriate Gestapo agents and Kriminalpolizei chiefs. The grisly task was completed over the next several days.


The slain POWs and their surviving comrades are immortalized in the 1963 movie The Great Escape, directed by John Sturges. Filmed in Bavaria, Germany, the film boasts an extensive and impressive cast (listed below). One of the leading actors, Donald Pleasence, was himself a Royal Air Force wireless operator during World War II, serving time in a German POW camp after being shot down.

Richard Attenborough ... Roger Bartlett ("Big X")
Charles Bronson ... Danny Velinski ("the Tunnel King")
James Coburn ... Louis Sedgwick ("the Manufacturer")
James Donald ... Rupert Ramsey ("the SBO")
James Garner ... Bob Hendley ("the Scrounger")
Robert Graf ... Werner ("the Ferret")
Gordon Jackson ... Andy MacDonald ("Intelligence")

Angus Lennie ... Archibald Ives ("the Mole")
John Leyton ... William Dickes ("the Tunneller")
David McCallum ... Eric Ashley-Pitt ("Dispersal")
Steve McQueen ... Virgil Hilts ("the Cooler King")
Hans Messemer ... Von Lugar (Stalag Luft III Commandant)
Donald Pleasence ... Colin Blythe ("the Forger")
Nigel Stock ... Dennis Cavendish ("the Surveyor")

The historical source for The Great Escape is Paul Brickhill's book of the same title, published shortly after the war. Brickhill, a British POW who served as one of the Stalag Luft III stooges, was supposed to have been among the escapees, but was disbarred at the last minute due to claustrophobia. Another Great Escape stooge, American George Hake, wrote the book's introduction. The maps and drawings are the work of Ley Kenyon, one of the escape organization's star counterfeiters.

Many details of the actual escape were meticulously re-created in the movie under the technical advise of Canadian Walt Floody (the real-life Tunnel King) and Englander Barry Mahon. Unfortunately, the movie is not entirely accurate. Although most of the trials and tribulations of the ingenious tunneling process are correctly detailed, the characters (all identified with fictitious names) are trumped-up composites of several real-life prisoners. Admittedly, such amalgamation is understandable for the necessary ease of story-telling. (The actions throughout the film of McQueen's character, for example, can be linked to at least seven of the actual POWs.) The participation by American POWs in the entire event—from preparation through the escape itself—is somewhat overstated.

The most predominant departure from the true events happens once the escape has occurred, and the action shifts from one escapee to the next and then the next showing their attempts to flee and subsequent arrest by German authorities—some of the scenes are strictly Hollywood. Additionally, The Great Escape abbreviates the end for the unfortunate escapees who were shot, but the dramatic finale is poignant all the same. Even with its minor historical flaws, the movie faithfully displays the extreme courage, dogged perseverance, countless frustrations, ironic wit, and suspenseful tragedy of Brickhill's Stalag Luft III comrades.

The Great Escape is not rated, but by today's standards, even the most discriminating viewer would agree that the movie falls safely within the bounds of a PG designation. It runs nearly three hours. The Elmer Bernstein score is a good one.

Select the best response for each item according to information learned by viewing The Great Escape, as well as through lecture and assigned reading.
  1. In a word, the living conditions for the prisoners of Stalag Luft III were generally:
    1. accommodating
    2. bearable
    3. harsh
    4. miserable

  2. The POWs referred to their German captors as:
    1. "ferrets"
    2. "goons"
    3. "penguins"
    4. "stooges"

  3. The tunnelers had to deal with all of the following problems except:
    1. dispersal of huge amounts of dirt
    2. detection by ever-present German guards patrolling the compound and inspecting the barracks
    3. noise created by men working in the tunnels
    4. unusually difficult tunneling due to extremely dense and rocky soil

  4. The tunnel used by the prisoners to escape Stalag Luft III was named:
    1. "Tom"
    2. "Dick"
    3. "Harry"
    4. "George"

  5. All of the following lines were spoken in The Great Escape except:
    1. "I'll have ham and eggs" (Attenborough/Bartlett)
    2. "I love you" (Bronson/Velinski)
    3. "I'm a lifeguard" (Coburn/Sedgwick)
    4. "I learned it in the Boy Scouts" (Garner/Hendley)

  6. The Christmas carol sung in The Great Escape by a POW choir in order to mask the noise of the tunnel workers was:
    1. "Frosty the Snowman"
    2. "The Twelve Days of Christmas"
    3. "Jingle Bells"
    4. "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"

  7. All of the following problems plagued the escaping prisoners except:
    1. trolley derailments due to corners of clothing or blankets becoming caught under the wheels
    2. instantaneous bouts of claustrophobia by some of the escapees unnerved by the tight confines of the long, dreary tunnel
    3. partial cave-ins owing to oversized or mishandled baggage hitting the wooden support braces
    4. well-lit grounds, where the escape tunnel emerged beyond the camp fence, because of the full moon present that night

  8. The escape from Stalag Luft III was detected by the Germans when:
    1. three claustrophobic POWs decided to cut the wire fence to escape rather than pass through the tunnel
    2. the camp's electrical system shorted and German soldiers traced the problem to the lights in the tunnel
    3. an unusually large number of prisoners were spotted entering one of the barracks
    4. one of the German sentries prowling outside the fence happened on to the tunnel exit by sheer accident

  9. The real-life character depicted most accurately in The Great Escape is:
    1. Squadron Leader Roger Bushell (aka Roger Bartlett), played by Richard Attenborough
    2. Flight Lieutenant Walt Floody (aka Danny Velinski), played by Charles Bronson
    3. Fleet Air Arm Lieutenant-Commander Peter Fanshawe (aka Eric Ashley-Pitt), played by David McCallum
    4. Major Jerry Sage (aka Virgil Hilts), played by Steve McQueen

  10. Of the 76 POWs to escape Stalag Luft III:
    1. all eventually made it safely out of Germany
    2. all were recaptured, 50 of whom were murdered
    3. 26 escaped Germany; the remaining 50 were recaptured and subsequently shot
    4. 73 were recaptured, 50 of whom were shot; three escaped to freedom

  11. England and France declared war on Germany in 1939 after Germany's unprovoked invasion of:
    1. the Sudetenland
    2. Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands
    3. Poland
    4. the Rhineland

  12. The Lend-Lease Act:
    1. subsidized American farmers and manufacturers during the war
    2. provided food and clothing to citizens of any nation at war
    3. created a post-war benefits package for returning World War II veterans
    4. supplied needed war materials to the Allied Nations

  13. All of the following countries remained neutral in World War II except:
    1. Italy
    2. Portugal
    3. Spain
    4. Switzerland

  14. The President during most of World War II was:
    1. Herbert Hoover
    2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
    3. Harry S Truman
    4. Dwight D. Eisenhower

  15. The 1942 Rose Bowl, removed from California to the East Coast due to concern over additional Japanese attacks after Pearl Harbor, was won by:
    1. Duke
    2. Oregon State
    3. Michigan
    4. UCLA

  16. The President's Executive Order No. 9066 authorized:
    1. development of the atomic bomb to be used against enemies of the United States during World War II
    2. severe punishments for German authorities involved in the murders of the recaptured Stalag Luft III escapees
    3. internment of several thousand Japanese-Americans who resided near the Pacific Coast
    4. American membership in the United Nations

  17. The D-Day invasion took place on the coast of Normandy in northern:
    1. Belgium
    2. England
    3. France
    4. Germany

  18. In April of 1945, American and Russian forces broke through the German lines and converged at:
    1. the Elbe River
    2. Berlin
    3. the Carpathian Mountains
    4. the Oder River

  19. Germany surrendered in May of 1945 as a direct result of the:
    1. D-Day invasion
    2. Battle of the Bulge
    3. death of Adolf Hitler
    4. Munich Conference

  20. The United States gained control of the Pacific with its victory at the Battle of:
    1. Coral Sea
    2. Corregidor
    3. Guadalcanal Island
    4. Midway

  21. The USS __________ was the most decorated battleship of World War II.
    1. Arizona
    2. Iowa
    3. Missouri
    4. South Dakota

  22. The United States Pacific Fleet was commanded by:
    1. William Halsey
    2. Husband E. Kimmel
    3. Bernard Montgomery
    4. Chester Nimitz

  23. All of the following elements figured to some degree in America's decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan except to:
    1. bring about Japan's war surrender
    2. demonstrate to the Soviet Union that the United States was militarily prepared to challenge the spread of communism in the post-World War II world
    3. inflict revenge on Japan for its sneak attack on Pearl Harbor
    4. dissuade the fighting spirit of the Japanese by destroying some of their religious and cultural shrines

  24. All of the following are movies about World War II except:
    1. The Longest Day
    2. Gone With the Wind
    3. Tora! Tora! Tora!
    4. A Bridge Too Far

  25. The Great Escape is best described as a/an:
    1. entirely fictional story of an escape attempt from a German POW camp
    2. historical synopsis of World War II
    3. profoundly embellished and exaggerated version of the escape from Stalag Luft III
    4. somewhat accurate account of the actual event

Choose one of the following. Your response should be 3-5 typed, double-spaced pages and include a list of sources used (minimum of two required).
  1. Discuss the shift in American public opinion away from the concept of isolationism toward the theory of internationalism from 1920 to 1941, in light of the various factors that influenced the change.

  2. Explain the rationale behind the Neutrality Acts and their failure to keep the United States out of World War II.

  3. Apart from the military engagement of World War II, there were both positives and negatives that came of the war. Discuss some of these developments, citing specific examples.

"The most tiring job is doing nothing."

Click here to learn more about the Great Escape.